News & Politics

Who the Hell Is Pankaj Mishra?

I presume you know who Jordan Peterson is. If not, it’s time for you to look him up and watch a few of his innumerable, and almost invariably wonderful, YouTube lectures, interviews, and debates. A clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he first attained a degree of mainstream celebrity two years ago when he stood up publicly to Canada’s notorious Bill C-16, under which citizens refusing to refer to transgender individuals by their chosen pronouns (including freshly invented ones) could be subject to punishment. Since then, his brilliant analyses of Western society today, his challenging reflections on the need for young – and not-so-young – people to face up to responsibilities, develop competence, and seek meaning in life, and his blunt criticisms of the postmodern enemies of free speech and deniers of biology have won him a massive worldwide following, making him, in the view of many, the most prominent and important intellectual of our time. He’s also become a popular object of attack by leftist ideologues and pretenders at revolution who recognize him, his thoughts, and his army of admirers as an existential threat to the domination of contemporary culture by unexamined and pernicious socialist assumptions.

One of the most recent – and prominent – assaults on Peterson was written by one Pankaj Mishra and  appeared on March 19 at the website of the New York Review of Books. Entitled “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism,” it oozes condescension. According to Mishra, Peterson is a practitioner of “intellectual populism” whose latest book is “[p]ackaged for people brought up on BuzzFeed listicles.” Mishra’s characterization of Peterson’s ideas is breathtakingly dishonest. Peterson, he writes, “insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science.” Well, Peterson does recognize that male and female are biological categories and that certain biological and psychological differences exist between the sexes – some of which operate to the benefit of men, others to the benefit of women. Mishra mocks Peterson for taking Jungian archetypes seriously and says he mythologizes “right-wing pieties.” He also alleges that Peterson’s preoccupation with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is common among “Western right-wingers who…tend to imply that belief in egalitarianism leads straight to the guillotine or the Gulag.”

In fact Peterson is not against egalitarianism but against totalitarianism – and for capitalism, which Mishra can’t forgive. Peterson’s other offenses, in Mishra’s eyes, include his enthusiasm for “the individual striver” and his opposition to Marxism, “social justice warriors,” and the goal of equality of outcome. Peterson’s way of thinking, charges Mishra, “connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia” and led to the rise of “demagogues…in twentieth-century Europe.” This is both dishonest and disgusting. Mishra goes on to drag in such figures as W.B. Yeats, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Romain Rolland, Hindu monk Vivekananda, Japanese author D.T. Suzuki, German philosopher Ludwig Klages, Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh, English Orientalist Arthur Waley, and Italian fascist thinker Julius Evola. But the whole pretentious display is exploded by an editorial correction appended to the article: “An earlier version of this essay misidentified The Gulag Archipelago as a novel; it is nonfiction.” In other words, Mishra, who sneers at Peterson and others for their preoccupation with The Gulag Archipelago, a seminal text of the Communist era, actually thought it was a novel.

Let me put this simply: if you think The Gulag Archipelago is a novel, nothing you have to say about capitalism and Communism, or any other remotely serious subject related to human existence during the past century, is worth anything whatsoever.

Mishra’s name meant nothing to me, so after reading his piece about Peterson I felt compelled to look him up – and to dip into the rest of his oeuvre to get a better sense of him. Born in India in 1969, he’s written several books and innumerable articles, mostly about the relationship between the West and the East (his focus usually being on the subcontinent). Like the late Edward Said, he’s made a career in the West out of beating up on the West and attacking it for simplifying, sentimentalizing, and condescending to the East. How’s this for a take on jihadist terror? “Acts of terrorism in the post-9/11 period have shocked many Europeans into a new awareness of an alienated minority group in their midst.” That’s from a 2007 Guardian essay, in which he also asserts: “The Netherlands and Denmark…have draconian laws that discriminate against non-white foreigners.” Lie. In the same piece Mishra derides those who worry about “Londonistan” and “Eurabia,” who speak up for “Western values” and “Western civilization,” and who tilt at what he calls “the straw man of multiculturalism.”

In one 2015 article, “How to think about Islamic State,” Mishra describes ISIS as “a horrific expression of a widespread frustration with a globalised western model that promises freedom and prosperity to all, but fails to deliver.” For Mishra, to suggest that ISIS is rooted in Islam is sheer prejudice: he scorns “the experts on Islam who opened for business on 9/11” but who have nothing to offer but “pseudo-explanations” and whose “blaming of Islamic theology” for jihadist massacres is simply a way of “achieving moral self-entrancement, and toughening up convictions of superiority.” In another recent piece he claims that the West, driven by “hatemongering,” has entered an “era of separatism, in which people barricade themselves in fortresses, united only with those who look and speak like them.” The potted history he offers of America – a land, in his view, defined by “racial degradation” – makes Howard Zinn’s version look upbeat.

Mishra has a terrific scam going. As Edward Said’s career showed, there’s nothing that Western left-wingers love more than a guy who’s not from the West whose hustle is bashing the West. A capsule New Yorker review of his 2006 book Temptations of the West notes that “Mishra, a Hindu, has been accused in his native India of ‘pandering to white pro-Muslim audiences in the West.’” No surprise there. Anyway, keep up at this sort of thing long enough, and do it on a sufficiently pretentious level and with a proper air of moral righteousness and cultural victimhood, and, with any luck, you’ll become a darling of the Western left and enjoy the West’s rewards. So it is that Mishra has conquered all the right – which is to say left – media organs in New York and London: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Guardian, the London Review of Books, etc. Today, as they say, he “divides his time between London and India.” Nice work if you can get it. One just wonders how he can look at himself in the mirror. Jordan Peterson a fascist! Reprehensible.